Muriel Newman in 2003, wearing a satin jacket by Geoffrey Beene and seated in a chair by Eileen Gray, poses in front of a painting by Clyfford Still.
She had an eye—the ability to spot genuine artistic value—and she gave it a primary place in her life. She never stopped looking, and she looked carefully—not only choosing the brilliant and the wonderful but also avoiding near misses and outright disasters. Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman collected art, fashion, admirers, and amazing stories. Because she was a gifted conversationalist, she was always happy to share the stories: how she had run into Mark Rothko on a sidewalk in New York, and he had asked her to look at one of his new paintings—a marvelous work in the color field style—and she had bought it hot off the easel; how Willem de Kooning had the most awful teeth; how the fashion designer Issey Miyake called this dress of hers—well, he had created it, but now she wore it—a “dinosaur dress,” referring to its overlapping panels of fabric. She liked to say that she and the conceptual artist Daniel Buren had “a special communication.” Barnett Newman had given her a big runaround when she tried to buy his white-on-white painting. Almost without exception, you could mention a name from the art world and she would say, “Let me tell you a story about him.”
Newman shared her incredible collection of art, too—hosting parties after important openings in Chicago or allowing out-of-town collectors to come and view the walls of her East Lake Shore Drive apartment, which were filled with works by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, and Morris Louis. There were some de Koonings (regardless of his teeth, he could still paint) and that Rothko, of course; there were paintings and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder, an important early Robert De Niro Sr. Most of Newman’s extraordinary collection was purchased between 1949 and 1954, in the years when abstract expressionism was breaking onto the art scene. She had an uncanny knack for selecting the finest pieces of dramatically new art well before most people were even aware that change was afoot.
“When I worked at the Art Institute, it was part of my job to try to arrange for all the visiting art professionals to troop around town and see the private collections,” says Anne Rorimer, an art historian. “Everyone wanted to see hers, and Muriel never turned me down. She was always willing to open her doors.”
When Newman died of natural causes, at age 94, in August 2008, the Chicago Tribune’s obituary called her “the doyenne of Chicago modern art collectors and one of the most cosmopolitan figures on the scene.” Her abstract expressionist paintings had been bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1980, although she had said then that she hoped the museum would wait a long time before taking possession of the bequest—which Philippe de Montebello, then the director of the Met, called “the greatest private collection of abstract expressionists in the world.” Time magazine called the gift “spectacular.” (In 1980, the collection’s estimated value was between $12 million and $15 million; at the time of Newman’s death, it was valued in the hundreds of millions.)
The bequest caused great consternation in Chicago, and rumors flew about why the collection had been promised to another city. But Newman held firm to her promise, despite civic pressure and the astronomical rise in the monetary value of her collection. “This was a collection of New York art, and I had always felt it belonged in New York,” she said. In 2004, when she was in her early 90s, she asked the Met to pick up the paintings; she no longer wanted the responsibility for them. For the remaining years of her life, she turned to her closet and hung the walls with kimonos and textiles to augment the ethnographic body adornments already on display. “It was a very different look, of course,” says Peter Steinberg, Newman’s grandson, “but captivating nonetheless.”
By the time Newman died, she and her hometown had made up. After all, it was hard to stay upset with someone so lively, dedicated, and ubiquitous. Her charm—along with a throaty laugh—helped, too. For decades, Newman was a regular at gallery openings, art lectures, art-film screenings, and museum events. She funded the publication of catalogs and hosted receptions; she recruited patrons to serve on the city’s museum boards. She donated more than 400 items to the costume and textile department of the Chicago History Museum, “signature pieces from the haute couture and high-fashion world that are borrowed from us by museums around the world,” says Timothy Long, the costume curator of the museum.
And she gave money to both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art so that they could buy works for their permanent collections. At Newman’s memorial service last fall, held at the Arts Club of Chicago, James Rondeau, who holds the Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute, spoke about the many pieces of art—including some of her pre-Columbian, African, and Asian jewelry—that she had given to the museum.
The second floor of the Art Institute’s new three-story Modern Wing is devoted to contemporary American artists—and the floor features a Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Gallery. “Muriel’s legacy on collecting—really, on the idea of collecting—in this city is enormous and will be lasting,” says Rondeau. “She epitomized all the best attributes of a great collector: She was a very smart, endlessly stylish, and passionate individual.” One of the works in the new gallery is Near the Lagoon, a 2002 painting by Jasper Johns. “Muriel loved this painting, and she was very proud she could help the museum purchase it,” says Rondeau.
Bringing modern art to a wide audience was the center of Newman’s life. She had become a collector, she liked to say, because she was a “failed artist.” But for once Newman’s incredible eye didn’t see something clearly. In the end, she wasn’t a failed artist. Rather, she epitomized the art of collecting.
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Photograph: Suzy Poling
Newman’s East Lake Shore Drive co-op became a must-see stop for visiting art professionals. "Everyone wanted to see [her collection], and Muriel never turned me down," says a local art historian. "She was always willing to open her doors."
Newman was born in Chicago in 1914, the only child of Maurice and Ada Nudelman Kallis. Her family was well established in the city but not extremely wealthy. Her grandfather had been a county commissioner; her father was an engineer. Her mother and her aunts were women of great style.
Growing up, Newman was fascinated by art and longed to paint. She attended classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago, and the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, but she did not graduate. She preferred to spend her time painting rather than settling into a classroom routine. She was commissioned to paint a number of full-length portraits, and in them, she showed an ability to capture likenesses. “That was bad,” she told Gary Tinterow, the Engelhard curator of 19th-century and modern art at the Metropolitan Museum, years later. “It kept me from really [developing]. And I didn’t have to earn a living. That’s another problem. [Yet] I was getting paid for these . . . life-size oils.”
In 1938, she married Jay Z. Steinberg, a pianist who worked for his father’s Chicago company, Fullerton Steel and Wire. They had one son, Glenn, who was born in 1941. Jay was consumed as much by classical music as Muriel was by modern art, and so the couple traveled frequently to New York City for concerts, exhibitions, and gallery hopping. On one of those trips, Muriel ran into Hugo Weber, a teacher of hers at the Institute of Design. He took her to The Club, a loft at 39 East Eighth Street that served as a salon where artists and writers socialized and had feverish discussions about art, poetry, and Zen Buddhism. Kline, Rothko, Lee Krasner, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, and de Kooning and his wife, Elaine, were frequently there. Often after a lecture at The Club, the discussion would continue around the corner at the Cedar Tavern, where Jackson Pollock and the beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac hung out. (Pollock was eventually barred from the Cedar Tavern for tearing down the men’s-room door.)
Blond, petite, and curvy, with high apple cheeks and large, captivating eyes, Muriel was a presence, even within this crowd of dominant personalities. “She was beautiful and sexy, and so she was very popular,” says the Chicago gallery owner Rhona Hoffman. There were stories: how Kline invited her to go to the Met with him to study the drawings of Ingres; how de Kooning wanted her to run away to Europe with him. Years later, Newman liked to fan the rumors a bit herself. In 2007, talking with the Met curator Gary Tinterow, she alluded to the Kline story, saying, “But at the time I was married, so I couldn’t do that.”
“Certainly, as I was growing up, I heard some of this, but remember, I was a young kid,” says Newman’s grandson Peter Steinberg, today a 39-year-old physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. “So I never got the real dirt, if there was any. As an adult, I have to read between the lines. It sounds like big personalities and big lives.”
She did buy their paintings, picking up some real bargains. She paid $2,700 for de Kooning’s extraordinary Attic, and she bought Pollock’s Number 28—considered a supreme example of the artist’s work at the height of his career—for $3,000. She later said that she had known the artists, and they had needed money, but her straight-as-an-arrow selections belie such a simple explanation. Unlike many other collectors, she did not use an adviser. She followed her own artist’s eye, and as the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith noted, she “chose with an artist’s sense of urgency.” In a review of the Met’s 2007 show Abstract Expressionism and Other Modern Works: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, Smith wrote, “The consistently high quality of Mrs. Newman’s selections is thrilling. Many communicate a forceful self-sufficiency, as if they were the only works by their particular makers that we ever need to see. It is not hard to imagine them being looked at and loved, providing daily sustenance.”
Indeed, all of the artwork was proudly on display in the Steinbergs’ light-filled apartment at 3750 North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. With its white walls, Barcelona chairs by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and black Dunbar sofas, the place was a perfect setting for the modern vision. “Muriel lived with the things she loved,” says James Rondeau of the Art Institute. “The objects she owned were truly integrated with great élan into her daily experiences.”
In 1954, Jay Steinberg died, and Muriel temporarily stopped collecting. The next year, she married Albert Hardy Newman, a Chicago real-estate developer and investor. The marriage was an adventurous love match; the couple traveled to offbeat locations: Katmandu, Egypt, the Galápagos Islands, Beirut, Nairobi, Oceania, Vietnam, and Russia. Newman started buying again, but in large part her focus now was on textiles, pre-Columbian jewelry, and ethnic body adornments. She also bought four large sculptural pieces of jewelry by Alexander Calder. The couple moved to a co-op on East Lake Shore Drive with a breathtaking view of the lake. The art moved, too, of course.
“She asked my partner and me, Larry Kenny, to design a dining-room table for her,” says the architect John Vinci. “She offered no restrictions; we were just told to do what we thought best.” The table was made of onyx with bronze legs that Vinci patinated to green. He also recovered her sofas in a “mousy grayish-brown mohair,” Vinci recalls. And later Newman commissioned him to build a standing case—glass vitrines that floated on ebony bases—to display her jewelry.
Still, she gravitated to art. “She never shied away from the most difficult and the most daring art,” says her friend Anne Rorimer. “She was interested in conceptual and installation art.” Newman had thought of buying Robert Rauschenberg’s Satellite, a mixed-media sculpture topped by a stuffed pheasant, but her husband didn’t want it in the house. Instead, she talked the Chicago fiber artist Claire Zeisler into buying it; eventually, Zeisler donated it to the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Newman did have a nude life casting of a man by the sculptor John DeAndrea in her apartment. “It scared me to death,” recalls her grandson Peter Steinberg. “I was four years old, and I would run screaming when I saw ‘Oscar’—that’s what I called the statue,” he says. “It was sort of like seeing a dead body.” Finally, Newman called Rorimer, who was an associate curator at the Art Institute at the time, and said, “I have a somewhat unusual problem. My grandson won’t come into the apartment anymore.”
“She asked me if I would have the nerve to put the statue on view at the Art Institute,” Rorimer recalls. “She put it as a challenge to me. And we did put it on display, and it stayed there for quite a while.” Steinberg remembers visiting the museum several years later only to see the dreaded statue again. “I ran away screaming, ‘It’s Oscar! It’s Oscar!’” he says.
By the early 1970s, the Newmans were a glamorous and active couple. “Muriel was fascinating,” says the Chicago art collector Ruth Horwich. “She had a strong personality—and yes, opinions!—but she was also so much fun to be with. And she was such an attractive person, both literally and intellectually.” Rorimer recalls a particularly memorable party the Newmans gave after an art opening. “Carl Andre and Frank Stella were there,” she says. “And Thomas Messer, the director of the Guggenheim, came. Everywhere you looked that night there was some incredible person in the art world at Muriel’s.”
“Albert always had such a twinkle in his eye,” says Vinci. “He loved being around her, as did most people. She was just so positive and engaging.” Her favorite word was “mar-vel-ous.”
Around that time, Newman started seeking a future home for her collection. In Chicago, some in the art world thought that Newman would bequeath her abstract expressionist works to the Art Institute, but those close to her knew that would not happen. “She really soured on the place for a while,” recalls Rorimer. When Newman decided to give her collection to the Met in New York, rumors flew in Chicago that her decision was in response to some real or perceived anti-Semitism at the museum. In Newman’s obituary last August, the Tribune art critic Alan Artner wrote that Newman had always “denied this, saying her decision was in reaction to John Maxon, the Art Institute’s vice president in charge of collections, who had expressed contempt for most art of the 20th century.” (Artner did not respond to requests for comment.)
Maxon, who was an expert on the artwork of Tintoretto, died in 1977. In a 2007 interview with the Met’s Tinterow for a catalog on her collection, Newman said that had she “known that Jim Wood would come [as the new director and president of the Art Institute] and fix it all, things would have been different.”
During Wood’s tenure, from 1980 to 2004, Newman did change her feelings about the Art Institute. By the end of her life, she had given the museum more than 170 pieces of art.
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Photograph: Courtesy of the family of Muriel Newman
Muriel with her first husband, Jay Z. Steinberg
“Through the nineties, groups of people were always going out to dinner or the movies,” Rorimer recalls. “And Muriel was always there.”
“The lunches and dinners together were wonderful,” says Horwich. “With Muriel around, the conversation never flagged.”
She had always been interested in fashion, and she approached it as she had art—choosing from the best designers who were pushing the envelope in new and creative ways. Among the dresses she donated to the Chicago History Museum was a haute couture black taffeta sheath gown from the House of Dior, says Timothy Long. “The serial numbers inside the dress tell us when she ordered it, who worked on the dress, everything about it,” he explains. Another notable gift from Newman was a black wool afternoon dress by Balenciaga, currently on display at the History Museum’s exhibition Chic Chicago.
By the early 1980s, Newman was taken with the Japanese revolution in fashion. She often dressed in black—one notable exception was when she wore Issey Miyake’s gray zigguratlike Staircase dress, which set off her silver-gray hair. (“She always cut it herself,” says the Chicago boutique owner June Blaker.)
One of Newman’s favorite designs was a jersey dress from the 1983 all-black Paris debut collection of Comme des Garçons. By then, she was sporting thick-framed round glasses made in Europe and similar to those worn by the architects Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei. And she was always wearing an incredible sculptural piece of jewelry: a Chinese jade archer’s ring or ancient stone seals from Lebanon strung together as a necklace. Sometimes she attached nuts and bolts bought from a street vendor to a set of 1920s Cartier earrings. And she loved a metal-mesh handbag with a wraparound rhinestone snake; supposedly Gloria Swanson had carried it in one of her movies. Miyake came to her apartment once and reached for a sculptural item. “You’re holding a walrus penis,” Newman delighted in telling him.
Behind the whirl of parties and dinners and boldface names, there was a down-to-earth practicality. “My grandfather always tried to teach me worldly things, like how to get out of a sand trap or how to think strategically by learning chess,” says Steinberg. “And while my grandmother loved to talk about art, she also taught me how to clean smudges from my glasses.”
Steinberg’s sister, Ellen Steinberg Coven, recalls learning to walk as a toddler by pulling herself up on the Giacometti sculptures owned by her grandmother. “She lived a full and passionate life in all aspects,” says Coven. “She was an accomplished Chinese cook, a vigorous vitamin taker, and an avid reader. She would talk about French conceptual art, and she would also sing to her grandchildren over the phone.”
In conversations about art, Peter Steinberg remembers his grandmother talking about the emotion of artwork and how art takes one to “places beyond our ken. She was very serious about that—that the art was struggling with emotions that were very difficult to put into words.”
In 1988, after her husband, Albert, died, she carried on. “I would fly in from college and go straight to her place for visits,” says Steinberg. “It never mattered how late it was. She was a night owl, and she loved to sit up and talk.” She read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal every day, clipping out articles and mailing them to Steinberg and Coven. In 2004, Newman’s son, Glenn, an urban planner, died as a result of a medical mishap. “She tried to stay upbeat,” Rorimer says, “but of course it was a terrible shock.”
That year, Newman was also diagnosed with neuropathy, a disorder of the central nervous system, and she found it harder to go out. For a while, friends and associates came to visit her. The History Museum’s Timothy Long says he spent hours talking with her about her life and her clothes. “Not only was she a fascinating woman and great company,” Long says, “but through the story of her life, the museum was able to document so much about a specific time and style.”
“She liked to discuss things right up to near the end of her life,” says Rorimer. “I called her not long before she died. She said, ‘I don’t have the—what’s the word?’ And I said, ‘Energy?’ And she said, ‘That’s it.’”
“Artists try to grapple with the world in their own ways, and that was what she was interested in,” says Steinberg. “She was interested in it in the mystical sense—what does this say about the human race?—and in the aesthetic sense. And she tried to convey that interest to others, in her own marvelous way.”
Photograph: Courtesy of the family of Muriel Newman